Wednesday, 22 June 2022
Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022: From the Seanad
In January this year I published the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 and prioritised its progression through both Houses of the Oireachtas. Members of the Dáil will recall the intensive deliberations on Second, Committee and Report Stages in this House and the amendments I brought forward arising from those debates. In the Seanad I also had a thorough and constructive debate with Senators and on Report Stage there I successfully brought through four amendments to the Bill to respond to issues raised during those valuable debates. On this basis, I wish to introduce the four amendments to this House.
Seanad amendment No. 1 amends the definition of "early life information" in section 2 of the Bill. It seeks to ensure that where a relevant person had visitors or inquiries made about him or her, this information will be released, including the name of the person and, where available, the relationship to the relevant person. I am satisfied that this amendment underpins the primary aim of this Bill, which is to provide for the release of as much information as possible to relevant persons.
I welcome the Seanad amendments and any changes that will help to improve this highly problematic legislation. I acknowledge the adopted people and their advocates who have been fighting for the most basic changes, and the Senators who argued for the improvements as well.
We all wanted to get behind this Bill but, regrettably, the major defects and injustices remain. The mandatory information session, labelled a barrier by numerous human rights experts, is still in place and the Bill still does not feature the words "illegal adoption", which ignores the lived experience and wishes of many adopted people. Also, it does not provide for the widest definition of "personal information" to ensure relevant people will have access to all records. These are some of the main issues, and many others remain. There is no hope for those necessary changes now.
Regarding the amendments, amendment No. 1 is very welcome. It ensures that affected people can access information about who made inquiries about them or visited, which could be an important link in identifying family members or other people who were concerned about their welfare.
Amendment No. 3 is especially welcome. It ensures that any public information campaign would have international aspects. This correctly addresses a flaw in the Bill which failed to recognise the reality that many mothers, relatives and adopted people will have emigrated, especially after the deplorable way they were treated by the State and the prevailing social stigmatisation. The importance of the campaign having an international reach was called for in the pre-legislative scrutiny. Adopted people and advocates sought additional guarantees regarding the campaign that were disregarded, particularly the need for a stakeholder advisory group to have input into the design of the campaign.
It is paramount that this campaign is designed with empathy and sensitivity for dealing with these complex and potentially very triggering matters. Having stakeholders involved from the beginning would help in developing a more considered and effective campaign. Unfortunately, without a provision in the Bill to secure the involvement of adopted people and advocates, I have no confidence that they will have input to a Government campaign about them. I remind the Minister about the children's committee recommendation that the information campaign should be accessible and in plain English in a range of media sources, and that simple non-digital routes to access the Bill's provisions must be advertised and made available. Given the Department's poor track record in this area, it is something we must prioritise.
Amendment No. 4 adds greater detail on the review mechanism. This is obviously welcome but, again, it dismissed the committee's recommendation for an explicit reference to the review including meaningful participation of relevant persons, groups representing survivors and families, persons with human rights and data protection expertise and other relevant persons or groups.
Since this is the first time the Bill is being discussed in the Dáil since it went through the Seanad, I add my voice to the voices of those who were disappointed with the way the apology for adopted people was approached. While I have no doubt that the Minister's apology was sincere, it was extremely poorly handled and insufficient for the scale of the rights violations concerned. The horrors of forced family separation, State-imposed trauma, denial of identity and ongoing institutional hostility need to be fully acknowledged and apologised for by the Taoiseach in a special sitting of this House, and adopted people, relatives and campaign groups should be given sufficient notice to attend in person. Anything else is another disgraceful treatment of a group people who have suffered enough abuse from the State since their birth.
This is the first Bill on which I have been directly engaged through the entire legislative process, from pre-legislative scrutiny to the final step. From my perspective, it is deeply concerning the extent to which the will of the people directly affected, who came before the committee, has been dismissed and ignored. These few last-minute amendments are welcome but they only represent a tiny portion of the changes that were sought by the people affected, advocacy groups and the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The Minister says the amendments were based on listening, but if he only accepts a tiny minority of the amendments and proposed improvements, it does not seem like it is listening. Unfortunately, it is adopted people and their relatives who will suffer.
I am not the only Deputy who is confused about the nature of this part of it, that is, of dealing with amendments from the Seanad. I agree to the amendments, but I do not agree with the Bill in its entirety. It seems that we do not have the opportunity to vote on the Bill in its entirety. It would be helpful if we could get clarity on that.
I welcome the amendments from the Seanad. I suppose there were some good steps from the first process of pre-legislative scrutiny through the various Stages - Committee Stage, Report Stage and the Bill's progress through the Seanad. I still have a major issue with the mandatory information session. I do not think the Minister will be shocked or surprised to hear that. It is my motivation for voting against the Bill. However, I welcome the progress that has been made, in particular on the international element. A significant number of survivors of mother and baby institutions live abroad, in particular in America and England. It is important that they are very much included.
The first amendment relates to people being able to access who is looking for information on them. I hope that all legislation can be amended at some point and if there is a review period there might be an opportunity for us to remove the mandatory information session. It is very problematic and in one way it flies in the face of what the Bill sets out to achieve. That said, I welcome the progress that has been made, but it is somewhat bittersweet that we could not get the final step so that we could fully support the Bill.
It is important to put on the record the changes that are being made. Seanad amendment No. 2 seeks to expand section 19 to ensure that in a scenario where a person has applied to a relevant body for birth, early-life care or medical information, and no record exists, as well as informing the applicant of this fact, the relevant body will also advise the applicant of the right to make an application to the contact preference register and to the tracing service. I am confident that in a scenario where records do not exist, strong supports will be made available to the person.
Section 63(1)(b) already provides that the agency and the authority will support a person by helping them to identify a relevant body that may hold records relating to them. Thus, Seanad amendment No. 2 builds on that spectrum of support and ensures that where records are not found, an applicant will be signposted to the other avenues to information provided for under the Bill.
Seanad amendment No. 3 inserts an explicit reference to the international component of the public information campaign into section 60. I believe it is appropriate that the primary legislation references the international element of the campaign. Therefore, this amendment inserts the words: “parents and relevant persons residing outside the State” in section 60. I thank Senators for the constructive debate we had on this on Committee Stage. The public information campaign will be wide-ranging, utilising a comprehensive range of media and communications channels in response to the broad age demographic and persons affected by this legislation. The initial campaign will be run from July to October of this year, with the possibility of extending it if required. It will include a door drop of an information booklet to every single household in this country. The information campaign will also utilise television, radio and print media channels. The Department of Foreign Affairs will assist with disseminating the information campaign internationally, helping us to reach out through Ireland’s embassies, overseas stakeholder networks and media channels.
I reassure Deputy Cairns that the stakeholder advisory group is currently involved in the drafting of this campaign, which will begin in July. It has been involved in the drafting of the leaflet and it is giving feedback on that and the wider media campaign. We have been engaging with the National Adult Literacy Association, NALA, to ensure that the text of the information booklet is in plain English and is easily understood.
I welcome the amendment and thank the Minister for setting out in such detail the extent of the public information campaign. It is some years since this was first mooted and discussed as part of the process of achieving an effective legislative framework on birth information. I am pleased it is at such an advanced stage. I am also pleased that the stakeholder advisory group and NALA are involved, as well as the weighting of the international component, which is clearly very important.
I echo the comments of Deputies Cairns and Funchion about their regret on the mandatory information session. We rehearsed those points in this House and in the committee and it was also debated in the Seanad. There is a significant amount to be positive about in the Bill in terms of the framework it is establishing to enable adopted persons to access their information. The public information campaign will be a hugely important part of making that effective. I thank the Minister for that.
This amendment is to section 70, the section that provides for a review of the operation of the Act. Seanad amendment No. 4 seeks to expand section 70 to provide further clarity on the composition of the review in terms of confirming that it will include consultation with relevant persons and other persons affected by this legislation, as appropriate.
This amendment also guarantees that the review will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. On Report Stage in the Dáil, I introduced an amendment to reduce the timeframe for review to two years, and this amendment further supports the aim to ensure that the implementation of this legislation into the future is robustly monitored with a view to improvement where necessary. I hope that speaks to some of the points Deputy Funchion made.
Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas have spoken at length on the realities of people seeking and receiving information regarding their birth and early life. I would like to put on the record my sincere gratitude for this level of debate, which has highlighted both the challenges and the realities people face in this regard. We all know that for far too long people who were adopted or boarded out and who had their birth illegally registered could not access the most basic identity information that the rest of us in the population take for granted.
Upon taking office, I made it clear that this legislation and the rights that it extends were a priority for me. While establishing these rights in Irish law is fundamental to a fair and equal society, it is nevertheless challenging. These challenges are well documented, and they have been discussed in the series of attempts to legislate for this issue over a number of decades. This Bill has benefitted from six sessions in the Dáil, eight sessions in the Seanad and more than 30 hours of debate this year alone. Such debate is right and proper for legislation that is of this degree of significance. However, throughout these years, and the many attempts to legislate for this issue, the questions of identity and origin persisted for so many citizens and members of the wider Irish diaspora. That was often at great personal cost to individuals.
I have spoken to many people who have been impacted by this legislation, as I know Members across the House have done. They told me about the impact the lack of information and the lack of access to that fundamental information about their own identity has had on them. We can never truly know the deeply personal impact that has had on individuals, but I hope this legislation can ease the impact. I hope they will see that today belongs to them. We know that, unfortunately for some people, the information that exists may be limited, incomplete or inaccurate. This reminds us all of how important the support and counselling services in place for people will be. We are determined to support people to answer questions that remain unanswered to date.
This is why at every juncture throughout this legislative process I have sought to find a way to provide what has been asked for to the greatest extent possible. In October, when all affected persons will be able to avail of these new provisions that will allow unfettered access to their birth information, we will be able to see the positive, real-world impact of this legislation, which stands as one strand and one form of the State's redress.
Work remains to be done. We know that generational wrongs from our recent past are still living memories for many of our citizens. The State must continue to listen to, learn from and act restoratively towards those it left out in the cold for far too long. This evening, however, I am optimistic this legislation will provide some comfort and hope for many of our citizens.
I will briefly address the matter of the review because it was an issue that originally came up on Committee Stage and that we certainly felt very strongly about. It has been acknowledged on Report Stage, which is very important. To be honest, reviews should be built into all legislation, following a realistic period to allow legislation to bed in. Legislation should not be allowed to be in place for four or five years without being reviewed. I welcome that part of it.
I, too, welcome the review. As I said, it is very important and positive to see a statutory framework finally being put in place, after many previous attempts, whereby adopted persons can access birth and identity information. A review will be very helpful in seeing just how effective the legislation is, whether the mandatory information session ultimately operates as a restriction on the access rights of individual adopted persons, and if in time it can be removed.